Books Chapter & Verse

How Pablo Neruda helped me appreciate Poetry Month – and much more

One of Neruda’s continuing themes was the way that basic objects, like tables and chairs, soap and socks, a dictionary or a pair of scissors, can seem magical when glanced at a slightly different angle.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda transforms something as simple as socks, which we pull from the drawer daily and slide on without thought, into something to savor and marvel over.
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As April brings another observance of National Poetry Month, I’ve been thinking a lot about Pablo Neruda, the Chilean writer whose work recently reminded me what poetry can do to enlarge our sense of who we are.   

A couple of months ago, on a gray winter weekend when the sky was bleak and the headlines were even bleaker, my wife and I curled up on the couch and worked the TV clicker, looking for a movie to cheer us up. It’s how we ended up watching “Il Postino,” the 1994 Italian film that fictionalizes a season in Neruda’s life.

While in political exile from his native country in 1952, Neruda lived for a while in a villa on the island of Capri. In the movie, Massimo Troisi plays Mario Ruopollo , a fisherman bored with his life on Capri, which prompts him to try his hand at delivering letters to the locals. It’s how he meets Neruda, played by Phillippe Noiret, who uses his gift for language to help Mario see his familiar existence in a new way. In connecting with a poet, Mario comes to think like a poet, his vision refreshed by the possibilities of land and sea, the wind, the faces of family, the beating of the human heart.

I finished “Il Postino” feeling hopeful, but a little envious, too. Why couldn’t I also be graced by the personal counsel of a famous poet like Neruda? But then I remembered that Neruda, who died in 1973, was as close as my bookshelf, which contained a copy of his “Odes to Common Things.” One of Neruda’s continuing themes was the way that basic objects, like tables and chairs, soap and socks, a dictionary or a pair of scissors, can seem magical when glanced at a slightly different angle.

Here’s part of Neruda’s “Ode to a pair of socks”:

 Maru Mori brought me

 a pair

of socks

that she knit with her

shepherd’s hands.

Two socks as soft

as rabbit fur.

I thrust my feet

inside them

as if they were

two

little boxes

knit

from threads

of sunset

and sheepskin.

That’s how Neruda transforms something as simple as socks, which we pull from the drawer daily and slide on without thought, into something to savor and marvel over.

This is really what all good poets can do – making the mundane into the magical, the everyday into an adventure. This April, along with Neruda, I’ve been reading Billy Collins’ new collection, “The Rain in Portugal,” as well as “Envelope Poems,” a collection of verse fragments that Emily Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes. In one of these musings, Dickinson observes that some of us “are only profound by accident.”

If we want those moments of deepened awareness to arrive more often, poetry is there to help – in April, and beyond.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."